Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

Christmas: what’s in a name?

Posted: December 20, 2009 in Uncategorized
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So it’s that time of the year again when we’re inundated with Christmas decorations, songs and messages. What messages are those? It’s not uncommon to hear people bemoaning the fact that they think the “true meaning” of Christmas has been lost, but what’s taken its place and do the messages really differ?


Certainly people the world over have embraced the Christmas holiday, often regardless of background, culture or even religion. You could argue that it’s been fuelled by corporate opportunism, but even the greediest of consumers seems to feel that there should be a more altruistic meaning to the season.

So the meaning of Christmas has “expanded”, it seems, to become disassociated from the name. Now it’s meant to be a time of peace and goodwill to all; on a grander scale, a message to say “let’s all be nice to each other”. At its heart is the understanding that we can change the world if we just try hard enough, we can fix it and ourselves and attain something better.

Thing is, the real message of Christmas is that we cannot: it is the ultimate admission that His intervention was needed to set things right. It’s not not about us, not about what we can do but about what He had to. In the end, we can hold hands and rage againt the darkness all we like, but it will avail us not. We can only fold them together and come again to the stable that holds the Light that really overcomes.

So as some may decry the chance of the name of Christmas being changed, I think I’ve come to a kind of peace. The message doesn’t reflect the name anymore and I doubt we’ll gain much by pretending it is so. I think I finally understand the real “true meaning” and, as for me, that’s what I’ll always celebrate.

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Using the hopeless emptiness

Posted: August 10, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Enforced sick leave sure means you get to catch up on your movie viewing. We saw a movie called Revolutionary Road the other day and something in there got me thinking.


The main characters (Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, in roles far removed from Titanic) find themselves trapped in the suburban rat race and make plans to escape to Paris in a quest to find meaning and their authentic selves. The Di Caprio character referred to the apparent futility of the lives of all those caught in their situation as “the hopeless emptiness”. Reminded me of a quote by Henry David Thoreau, who said: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. They recognized that most of those around them could not even face up to the horror of meaninglessness and were determined not to follow the treadmill they were set on.

The hopeless emptiness. Much as I thought they understood the bleakness of their plight, a part of me wondered if fleeing to Paris would ultimately find a solution for them. I mean, in the absence of any Absolute, with no Alpha and Omega against which to define their meaning and authenticity, it seems to me that all they would find in the end would be hopeless emptiness in a different setting. For them really to find what they were truly seeking required a fundamental paradigm shift, not merely a change of context or lifestyle.

It occurred to me also, though, that the way that the hopeless emptiness also represented an opportunity for sharing the need for our faith in a meaningful way. Sin is a concept that is at best outdated and at worst completely irrelevant in a relative universe. Even concepts of separation and loneliness can be answered to some degree by connection at a purely human level. But the desparation of the hopeless emptiness can only be quelled by the reality of an Absolute, the Alpha and Omega that gives realisation of a meaning founded not in yourself and those around you, but in Him and His song. All other solutions ultimately lead back to themselves and the hopeless emptiness from which they started. This, I think, is something people can understand.

We need to find ways of telling the Story in ways that make sense to those who are listening, or else we become just so much unintelligible babble. Being Greeks to Greeks and Romans to Romans is just as relevant as it has always been, even more so in the global village of today. What concepts do you think fit the bill these days?

— Posted From My iPod

Alpha ramps up

Posted: May 31, 2009 in Uncategorized
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My wife and I are busy running a marriage enrichment course, as we believe strongly in marriage and the value of a deep and permanent relationship with your significant other. We use the Alpha marriage course from HTB, developed by Nicky and Silla Lee and as a result were invited to an information dinner by Alpha South Africa.

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For those of you who may not know, the Alpha course is designed as a non-threatening invitation to introduce and discuss the Christian faith over a number of weeks. Usually preceded by a dinner, sessions consist of viewing a DVD and then discussing the presentations in small groups afterwards. Anything goes in the discussions: there are no sacred cows and no pat answers are allowed. It’s an excellent tool for introducing the faith and is well though out, well presented and easy to facilitate. The success of the course has meant that similar ones have been developed in other areas – like the marriage course.

While the evening didn’t present anything particularly new, it did show that the team of Alpha South Africa are very serious about expanding its growth in this country. They hope to increase greatly the number of churches running the course, especially in township areas that have been relatively unrepresented, and spread it across all denominations (which it is already doing to some extent). I think that the material, though not perfect, works well and is useful in just about every context. Moreover, common use of programs like this across all the churches seems both to unite and galvanise believers well. If you’re looking for easy and effective material to reach out with, or if you’re interested in teaming up with a worthwhile effort, I suggest you get hold of the team through their website. Could be the beginning of something great.

Well, the controversy doesn’t let up for Rhema after its decision to allow Jacob Zuma to address the congregation from the pulpit a few Sunday mornings back. Predictably, other parties have requested the opportunity to do the same and they have been turned down.

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As reported by iafrica news and other sources, a request by Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement to address the congregation was turned down, as was a request by Kenneth Meshoe of the African Christian Democratic Party. The areligious ANC can speak but an avowedly Christian party cannot? This in spite of an apparent undertaking from Ray Macauley on Radio 702 that all parties would be afforded an equal opportunity.

One hopes that it is merely a case of Rhema realising that it made a mistake the first time round and not wanting to make matters worse by continuing down the path, but they should at least then have the courage to admit having done the wrong thing initially. To do otherwise simply plays into the hands of those contending that it is just cosying up to the ruling party and its likely leader – and that’s a disturbing inference indeed.

Beat your butterfly wings

Posted: February 26, 2009 in Uncategorized
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There are a few movies I have a very soft spot for and one of them is Jurassic Park: the concept, execution and special effects made for a memorable cinematic experience and it also alerted me to some interesting ideas. One of these was that of chaos theory – you may remember the scene where the mathematician Ian Malcom refers to the butterfly effect, saying that “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

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The butterfly effect is often used as a popular way to describe chaos theory which, to be technical, is the theory used to describe the behaviour of complex, dynamical systems (whose states evolve over time) that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. The term “chaos” is somewhat ironic, because according to the theory this sensitivity means that the systems are not actually random but deterministic.

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The point that the smallest action can have enormous effects has been popularly grasped, even though the actual use of the term “butterfly effect” has been somewhat misunderstood – its originator, Lorentz, was actually making the point that, if such small actions may have enormous consequences, how can we know what the precise origins are? Despite popular belief to the contrary, Lorentz was saying that it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to trace the origins of events.

I guess you could call our lives a dynamic system as well, and that these theories would hold water for them too. We can grasp instinctively that the things we do may have profound consequences – an impulsive decision to step into a coffee shop may lead to us meeting the person who becomes our spouse and our union produces a child who changes the world in some way – but we understand also that it is impossible to see these end consequences. To be able to know them, as in the case of chaos theory, you would have to know every single intial factor and be able to calculate its ultimate effect in the end consequence; you’d have to know absolutely everything and you’d be, well, God.

If we believe that He exists and is intimately involved in our lives, there is a kind of empowering comfort here. We do not have to bear the responsibility of the end consequence but we can know that we contribute to it when we act in simple obedience. Put another way,we don’t have to worry that what we are doing seems small, we just have to do it. He ties all things together, knows the end and our contribution to it and sees each act as invaluable in the final result. It requires that we let go of the notion of ourselves as the final determinant (it’s not about us!) but it also fills everything we do with potentially profound meaning.

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So what are you waiting for? Trust that the end is known and, though not up to you, intimately bound with your actions. Act in obedience and beat your butterfly wings.

For those who don’t know, humanist organisations have been running campaigns, both in the UK and Washington DC, which dispute the existence of God and urge people to just be good and get on with enjoying life. They look something like this in the UK:

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And like this in Washington.

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Now, I’ve got no problem with them voicing their opinion on God’s existence, for anything that invites debate around this issue is welcome. But I get a little stumped when looking at the second part of their message. Surely, if you take away God and the Absolute, everything is relative, which means that there isn’t really any “good” when you come to think about it, just what’s “right for you”. Why would you want to do something that wouldn’t serve your own self interest? Just don’t get caught, that’s all. And as for enjoying your life when you really grasp that there is no meaning, no purpose and only the abyss – well, I’d be curious to see people really grappling with the implications of that. It seems a little illogical to be throwing out a concept but trying to retain the potential good of it.

It also kinda gets me down to see this as a counter campaign to what people think that the message of Christianity is all about. Again, it seems to be all about the don’ts and fears and threats. Not much light going on there. Christians really need to think about the essentials they’re putting across and how they are being perceived.

In the early 1900s, physicists were struggling to come up with theories and equations which would explain and predict consistently the behaviour of things around them. An example was James Maxwell’s set of electromagnetic laws, elegant at rest but impossibly complex in motion. These struggles were overcome when a young Swiss patent clerk by the name of Albert Einstein pointed out that their difficulties would go away if they would just abandon the notion of absolute time.

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His ability to do so, to abandon that underlying notion, led to the theories of relativity and enabled science to move further along the path of understanding truth.

It’s always bothered me to see people trying to come up with convoluted theories and explanations to try and reconcile their picture of God and His working with what they see in scriptures and the world around them. God must do this, God must do that and if it doesn’t happen it’s obviously because of x or y. Problem is, the theories always sound like a stretch and never explain things consistently. For myself, these problems went away when I abandoned the notion that it was all about me in any shape, form or manner: by taking my “rights” out of the equation, I get to a picture and understanding I think is much closer to truth. It also gives me a better basis for going forward, as I understand that the only relevant question is not “what do you want?” but “what do You want?”.

Sometimes we bang our head against a wall for the longest time, trying to make something work with our long-held theories but never getting any results out of it. If that’s the case, perhaps we need to be examining again the underlying notions on which we’re basing those theories. A radical rethink, an abandonment of something we unconsciously consider fundamental, might be required to move closer to truth.

In but not of…

Posted: January 13, 2009 in Uncategorized
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So I’ve been reading the first book in the Harry Potter series to my eldest son, who’s 8. Nothing really remarkable about that, you may say, but in a conservative Christian community it sparks some potentially interesting reactions. One of the good conversations that flows from relates to the way that Christians should relate to others and things that do not share or reflect their beliefs – “the world”, if you will.

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Many writers in the Bible make it clear that the philosophies of the world are fundamentally opposed to those of Christians, with Peter describing us as aliens and strangers in the world. “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods,” says John. “Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father”. It’s hard to argue with that: any kind of logic or insight will tell you that you’re dealing with two belief systems so diametrically opposed that going deeper into either one must necessarily lead you further away from the other. Small wonder that we are told to guard our hearts and our minds, to be aware of the things around us and the way that they might cause us to be clouded in our judgments and our thinking.

The temptation is obviously to surround ourselves with only those things which confirm our belief, to make sure that our community is made up only of fellow believers and to build high the walls that defend us against doubts and temptations offered by anything outside. Yet we sit with this dilemma: we are also called to reach out. How can we do this if we are interested only in insulating ourselves? And if we accept that being effective at reaching out means that we must do so with a real understanding of those to whom we reach out, how can we do so without grasping the contents of their world?

I had an interesting conversation with Johan, our pastor, a little while back. He was telling me of the results of a survey that was done in the States around the perceptions of Christianity amongst Christians and non Christians alike. It seemed that the overriding perception of the church (and hence Christianity) was that it was all about taking a stand on issues where it differed from the prevailing thought in the world, abortion and homosexuality being the frequently quoted examples. In other words, the church was seen as being all about the “don’ts”. I find this unsurprising but also deeply troubling.

For one thing, I just don’t see how this is effective reaching out in any way. If there’s one thing that marks the wider world today, it’s the post modern concept that there is no absolute truth (though I think the real lesson is that there is no absolute proof). Moral relativism – if it works for you, it’s okay – is the prevailing thought and “Intolerance” has become the greatest sin. In this context, the thought of being an evil sinner because you have beliefs different from someone else’s is incomprehensible (after all, their beliefs aren’t true, just relative) and the fact that someone loudly and persistently tells you that this is so isn’t going to make you accept it no matter how often they shout. It’s a world where people need to be attracted to something rather than frightened away from something else, and an increasingly sophisticated audience isn’t going to be drawn to something that is all about the don’ts.

For another thing, how can we say that this is the face that we should be presenting? “This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples – when they see the love that you have for each other”; “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence…Love others as well as you love yourself.” Not too many don’ts there. One of the books that really made me think was Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I never knew” (read it! read it!), where he draws some unsettling comparisons between the institutions of Jesus’ time and those of ours. In short, the church today looks more like the Pharisees of that time than anything else: Christians don’t often suffer the accusation of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners – they’re usually the ones doing the accusing. I think it’s going to be pretty tough changing the perceptions of the church and what our real message is if all we’re going to do is build walls and tell everyone else that everything they’re doing is wrong.

That said, I feel a little stumped as to how this thing should work out practically. Some parts are easy: if all our relationships are only with other Christians and all our time is spent only in the church, I think that points towards a problem. Friendship evangelism only works if you have friends. We’re here to be a light, bringing out the God-colours in the world, not hidden under a bucket. But once you’re out there, what then?

I suppose your actions will speak louder than your worlds, like the guy who’s always drinking Coke when everyone else is drinking beer (could make you a popular driver!), and that you wouldn’t need often to say anything to show that your beliefs were different. Judgment and condemnation not needed, only the presentation of something different. And coupled with that, perhaps, a questioning of unquestioned attitudes – why do you do this or that? What are your underling beliefs and why do you think they’re right, even for you? Do you think it’s right that everything’s relative? Opportunities will come that are unforced, I’m sure; after all, we’re not the One directing the conversations.

For ourselves, the question of guarding hearts and minds could be approached in a similar way to the way we should reach out. It’s not so much a question of fearfully shutting out everything contrary to our view but rather of openly letting in those things we know to be true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not to curse. That way the light that comes in must surely squeeze out any darkness that lingers. The attractive alternative must work as much for us as for anyone else. We don’t need to fear reaching out when we genuinely have something real and better to show.

So I visited another church while on holiday – that of my in-laws, to be precise. I’m always curious when visiting another place of worship to see whether or not I sense God in the place, regardless of the style or format of worship that the place uses. I’m very aware of the potential for this being a completely subjective thing – am I just looking for something that fits with my preconceived notions? – but I can’t help wondering every time what I will encounter.

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I guess it’s about the combination of the leader, the members of the place and the environment itself that combines to create the awareness or otherwise of God being present, of something spiritual. If God is omnipresent, surely it is the alignment of our hearts that attunes us and those visiting to an awareness of Him being there? Sometimes, admittedly, there are questions that go beyond this. I was struck, for example, when attending the funeral of a Jewish colleague’s father by what seemed like the absence of God: was it just that the grief so palpably present amongst those attending “excluded” God, or was it a matter for theological debate, saying that God’s presence is now inherently harder to find there? At the church I attended while on holiday, it felt like the minister reflected God but that the congregation was tied more to tradition than to something vital and changing and that made the awareness of God…constrained, somehow.

It’s not about denomination at all – I have found God in every different kind of church I have been to – but about an attitude of the whole, I think. It’s also not about the format and style of worship or teaching, because I know enough to understand that one size does most definitely not fit all (thought the end result should still be clothing, right?). I look for, at the least, the awareness of moving from the realm of “Me” to the realm of “Not-me”, an awareness of being committed to something greater and eternal, because I think that is the footprint that the presence of God would leave. And then there is the part so hard to put into words, because it goes beyond easy definition and treads on the realm of the super-subjective, but I also look for that instinctive recognition, the voice of the Shepherd that I know but cannot explain and the sense that I “just know” He was there. But I am always a little wary of my reactions there, and this is probably not something I would rely on every time.

It makes me ponder on what to look for, because many folk I know have moved around and search for a long time to find the “right” church. Perhaps the question to answer is twofold: is God there and does He want you to be there, too? What do you look for when you seek the presence of God in a place?